Prowls for Owls

Last week, seven of us took a free afternoon to walk to town. It was an hour down and two hours up. So we didn’t actually have much time in town. It was enough to spot a few birds and buy a few cool drinks. While we were outside one shop, children came out to show us their newest pet.

Turns out it was a baby owl! They communicated to us that it had fallen out a tree far, far away. We instantly cooed and ooohed. Everyone wanted to hold the baby owl and pose with it. Someone has a photo of me with it, don’t recall who – perhaps Charlotte or Jordan has it. The interesting thing about the community vibe is that we’re all freely asking people to take photos of various spectacles, including scientific documentation with their own cameras…. I can’t imagine how hundreds of people are going to redistribute the photos at the end of all this.

Some of the party wanted to take the owl with us on our return up the mountain, but I vetoed that idea. I didn’t want to explain to children we were about to deprive them of their pet. Also, I was pretty certain Opwall would have a policy regarding bringing back orphaned wildlife. Nevertheless it was cute.

We believe the owlet to be a Mottled Owl, which is one of the two common types here, the other being the Crested Owl. At least those are the two we’ve identified on our Owl Prowls.

We found out later that during Opwall’s first year in Honduras, the locals were very eager to bring unusual specimens to the camp to show the scientists. But that’s not what Opwall is about.

While in Base Camp this week, (hence access to internet) Kate and I were assigned to complete each transect (4) once and to complete opportunistic surveys at will. We split on the first day because we had eight students and 3 new staff with us. Then she did the remaining two transects on her own and I did the teaching with demo netting. (We have 2-3 very worn nets, but no banding equipment). It’s still enough to show students birds up close and teach them how to work with nets.

The first excursion for the new birders (Andrew, Daniel, and Monte) was owling. 5 of us and 1 pre-med tag-along sitting on a ridge in silence straining to hear hoots and whoos. (We heard 2 mottled owls on our second ridge and then called it a night because they were jet lagged). Much more exciting than the previous week where 7 birders went out and heard no owls. This time we used ipods for playing calls and strategically visited ridges for better acoustics.

Kate, Daniel, and I went out the next time with another bird enthusiast, Chip, but poor weather conditions prevented us from staying out long or hearing owls.

The following night, Kate and I had our best luck. We had two owls, of two species both unknown at the first point. At the second point, we could still hear one from the first point, picked up two more of the same species as well as recording 1 Mottled and 1 Crested Owl in the distance as well. Total of 6 owls across four species. Best owling ever. Especially since it doesn’t require wearing two winter coats just to feel numb.

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Note: While in the field I will have no access to most social media, including facebook, twitter, and google+.

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Learning Feather by Feather

Field Report #2: Base Camp

If you’re looking for the frontiers of birding, try the tropics. Limited knowledge exists and the ability for mistakes abound. Last week during a training session we noticed a number of presumably juvenile Barred Forest-falcons clustering in pines along a ridge (2-3, with a possibility of some of those being adults). The following day we were treated Barred Forest-falcon consuming a passerine. It was quite exciting to watch the predator consume the prey. As the act proceeded,feathers rained down and the ornithologists scurried about collecting the feathers. One of the projects here is to sample isotopes across the various communities to construct food webs.

We’ve since used our assortment of feathers to identify the deceased as a Blue-crowned Chlorophonia. Go science!

A day or so later towards the end of a low-key banding day, we captured one of these fine, fierce predators. As we were reading the description in detail, something wasn’t quite adding up. Turns out, we weren’t working with Barred Forest-falcons after all, but the much rarer, endemic White-breasted Hawk. Whee and whoops!

How we mistook a hawk for a forest-falcon I’m not entirely sure, particularly as the forest-falcon in question has great Elvis sideburns of feathers. It wasn’t until we were examining the hawk feather by feather that we realized our error. (To be fair, there was some question of where the bars were in the earlier encounters!)

This was a much more exciting discovery. The Americans on the team (Rob and I) received a bit of grief over the misidentification initially as the White-breasted Hawk is a subspecies of Sharp-shinned Hawk. However, unlike the Sharpie, White-breasted Hawks have….. white chests. I did however note as I arrived to the net that it was very much Sharpie sized, so I feel I’m off the hook on that one. (There’s a bit of bantering and division between American and British procedures and customs. It’s mostly in good fun unless you say anything less than stellar regarding David Attenborough*.).

The White-breasted Hawk was a ringing first for the park. I can’t share all my photos due to limited bandwidth, but from just this one I hope you can get the sense of what a fine bird it is!

Hawk in the hand. White-breasted Hawk, a ringing first in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 15, 2015.

Hawk in the hand. White-breasted Hawk, a ringing first in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 15, 2015.

*They’re probably just as displeased if you misspell Attenborough. Alas.

Note: While I am in the field I will have no access to most social media including facebook, twitter, and google+.

Team Bird Unite

Field report #1: Base Camp
Days 1-12.

June 6 – Day 1 – Arrived in at Cusuco National Park in Honduras where I will be operating as an Ornithologist for the summer field season. Currently seven of the ten team members are present. The final three will be arriving during week 2. Broke my smaller, lens upon arrival when my bag spilled open. Bugger.

June 8- Day 3 – Learning mostly by ear than by sight. Can only keep a few species in my head at a time as my head is quite muddled. Came down with what I thought were allergies that transformed into a fever and sore throat. I’m going birding anyway.

June 9 – Day 4 – Overdid it. Lost my voice. Now have laryngitis. Still birding.

June 10 – Day 5 – It’s raining an awful lot for the dry season.

June 13 – Day 8 – Project developed. I’ll be exploring three additional methods in my research (incidental camera trapping, nocturnal point counts/transects, and opportunistic sightings). I’ve been working with the ornithology team lead, the biodiversity coordinator and the stats team to develop a sound and exciting project. (I hope). The goal is to figure out the relative amount of time to pursue each method to rapidly inventory the avifauna of an biologically unknown cloud forest.

June 14 – Day 9 – Voice returned, then I lost it again.

June 16 – Day 11 – Training is over. Tomorrow the team splits and the real work begins. I’ll be spending the week (week 2 per the official schedule) in Base Camp running the lectures and completing point counts and opportunistic sightings.

June 17 – Day 12 – Teams have departed to Capuco, Guanales, and Cantiles – various camps throughout the park.

 Bird team and associates during an early season practice season. Louie (1), Rob (2), Kate (5), and Jack (6) showing birds to Jordan (3), Sophie (4), and Brittany (7). People numbered from left to right. Cusuco, National Park, Honduras. June 12, 2015.

Bird team and associates during an early season practice season. Louie (1), Rob (2), Kate (5), and Jack (6) showing birds to Jordan (3), Sophie (4), and Brittany (7). Peopled numbered from left to right. Cusuco, National Park, Honduras. June 12, 2015.

* Note: While in the field I will have no access to most social media, including facebook, twitter, and google+.